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February 28, 2002

Youths from across U.S. find hope at oldest federal boarding school

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Author: Matt Baney, Argus Leader

FLANDREAU – In a hundred diminutive towns like this, scattered in every corner of the nation, there are high school basketball teams frolicking through unusually successful winters.

When such a charmed season bursts into being, it beguiles most anyone caught in its wake. Old memories are awakened and dusted off. Friday night’s game becomes a must-attend event.

For the first time in 15 years, there’s a winning boys basketball team at Flandreau Indian School.

With the team sporting a 13-5 record heading into this final regular-season weekend, hushed whispers of a berth in the state tournament are heard all around the school. That would be a first since 1973.

But there’s nothing typical about this team, or this school. This is the oldest federally owned Indian boarding school in the country, operating since 1876.

A tool of assimilation then, the modern-day Flandreau Indian School has become a refuge – a place for Indian teens from all over the country to trade in troubles at home for a fresh start. The 370 students live on campus, returning home only for the holidays and summer vacation.

Basketball also is different. In most small towns, the game is used to teach students teamwork and discipline. Here, it helps keep their lives on the right path. Here, a game-winning 3-pointer might convince a point guard to do his homework. Here, a successful season might prompt a small forward to hustle for his diploma.

“We want to win and want to do well, just like everyone else,” said Flandreau Indian School coach Paul Anderson. “But yeah, that’s probably secondary. … Giving these kids a chance really is what this school is all about.”

There are students who come to FIS out of family tradition – their mother or father or aunt attended years ago. Others come for a touch of adventure. Most are here to escape conflict back home.

But from coast to coast, they all arrive under a blanket of trepidation. One morning, they board a bus on a reservation they’ve never strayed from, leaving family and friends. When they get off, they’re a stranger in a strange place. And if they can’t stick it out at Flandreau Indian School, most won’t ever return to a classroom.

Given those circumstances, the result of a basketball game seems profoundly meaningless. But for some students, their devotion to the hardwood just might be their saving grace.

The survivor

Sitting in a box-shaped dorm room devoid of personality, Chris Mundell reviews his turbulent life with an almost creepy detachment. He speaks of his deceased mother, his absent father, his lawbreaking brothers, his struggles to avoid trouble – and never does his voice waver or his eyes water.

At 19, he’s a year or two older than most of his classmates. Experiencewise, he’s as worldly as a Vietnam veteran.

“I was grown at a really young age,” Mundell said, an echo of rap music wafting in from an adjacent room. “It’s kept me out of trouble so far – that’s got to be a good thing.”

Mundell, a senior guard on the basketball team, grew up on the move with his mother, Debra, and younger sister, Teresa. The three-person family leaped from town to town in Wisconsin, with Debra working brutal hours to support them. And when life grew too taxing, they returned – retreated, really – to Milwaukee and the home of Mundell’s grandparents.

On one of those occasions, an old demon crept up on Debra Mundell. Racked with back pain, she turned to an all-night drinking binge for comfort. She drove home but passed out before she got out of her car.

“The next morning, I got up for school, and she was passed out in the car,” said Mundell, who was 14 at the time. “I left for school and walked right past her; I didn’t even notice that she was in there. And later that day, that’s when they came to school and told me.”

The autopsy revealed that Debra Mundell died of heart disease, brought on in part by her earlier battle with alcoholism. Mundell’s father, whom he had never met, wanted custody of the boy. But he and his sister eventually were sent to live with an aunt.

And they stayed with her, all of them living in his grandparents’ Milwaukee home. Besides his mother’s death, nothing had changed. Mundell went about his life much as he had before.

Family members were troubled by the unemotional reaction from the junior high school student. Instead, he was subdued, numb.

“To me, it just seemed unreal,” Mundell said. “She was always gone, so I was used to her being gone, but I’m used to seeing her, too. It was kind of weird.

“And it’s strange how our family is,” he added. “We know each other, but we don’t know each other. We don’t ask questions about the past. I knew my mom, but I didn’t know her. The only thing I know of is what we went through (together); I don’t know anything beyond that. We didn’t really communicate too well. … It was almost like losing a stranger.”

Eventually, the peculiarities of his family life and the dangers of the Milwaukee streets began to weigh on Mundell. Last year, before his senior year of high school began, he moved to Baraboo, Wis., to live with a cousin. Later, he moved in with one of his brothers, who also had migrated to Baraboo.

Before long, he decided his best roommate would be no one, so he set out on his own. At one point last year, Mundell was attending school, playing basketball, working at a casino, financing a car and paying for an apartment. Something had to give, and it was school. Two months into his senior year, he dropped out.

As fall approached this year, his family pleaded with him to return to school. A great aunt agreed to take him in so he could complete high school.

Then, quite unexpectedly, Mundell got a call from Anderson, the Flandreau Indian School basketball coach. An acquaintance of Mundell’s had told Anderson of his basketball prowess, and the coach was interested.

If not for basketball, Mundell would not have come to South Dakota. He holds out hope of winning a college scholarship, and Flandreau Indian School was one of the few places he would be eligible to play. After arriving at the school in October, he adjusted to his new setting with characteristic aplomb.

“It’s all right. It’s standable,” he said. “Some kids say there’s nothing to do on campus, but those are the kids who don’t do nothing. To me, as long as I can play basketball, I’m all right.”

Chance to be young

Yet Mundell is still a bit of an outsider. Most Flandreau Indian School students grew up on rural reservations, not a city of more than 1 million people. He also looks a bit different. Besides his Potawatomi (Prairie Band) blood, he’s a quarter black, a quarter white and a quarter Puerto Rican.

But from his mother he gained a great love of his Indian heritage. And despite her personal failings and their distant relationship, he still speaks highly of her.

“My mom wasn’t a bad parent – she was probably the greatest parent I ever could have. But she had her downfall, like everybody.”

Always a good student when he was in school, Mundell now is well on his way to graduation. If basketball doesn’t result in a college opportunity, he’ll likely return to Milwaukee and draw up a new plan. At the very least, he’ll walk away from FIS with a diploma.

One more thing. After living as an adult for most of his years, Mundell is getting a taste of childhood here. For a few more months, anyway.

“I have my little fun days now,” he said, “because it was so rough back then. The child comes out of me every now and then. I’ll do some clowning and act a bit silly sometimes.”

There is a camaraderie among the FIS students. Even on a brisk winter evening, the campus is crawling with activity. Groups of students boot around a Hacky Sack and shoot hoops on the blacktop courts, while skateboarders troll the metal railings and concrete steps.

A few months ago, the youths were thousands of miles apart, unaware of each other’s existence. And now they’re here.

“Everybody seems to get along pretty good,” Mundell said. “I think it’s because we all have one thing in common: We’re all Native American. We can all relate in that way, at least.”

The father

When Jackson Clair left Wyoming for his fourth and final year at Flandreau Indian School this fall, he never had wanted to stay home more.

He wasn’t worried about life in South Dakota; his adjustment to FIS came long ago. What concerned him was the effect on his now 1-year-old son, Jackson Clair Jr.

“He was afraid that Baby Jack would forget him – wouldn’t know him when he came back,” Caroline Duran said via telephone from Wyoming. She is Clair’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. “He was just a baby when he left, and he was older and learned a lot by the time he came back for Christmas.”

To the relief of all, Clair’s fears were groundless. When he returned to Wyoming for the holiday break, the boy took to his father after only a touch of puzzlement. But that didn’t make the trip back to FIS any easier.

Clair’s graduation is only months away, yet the wait is difficult to bear. Even basketball isn’t as helpful as it once was.

“It used to be my favorite sport,” Clair said, “but after I had Baby Jack and started missing everyone, basketball wasn’t the same.”

Yet basketball has been a crucial component in Clair’s Flandreau Indian School career. It was the main reason he survived the freshman blues, which are not uncommon among FIS teen-agers living so far from home. When he was a sophomore, it introduced him to Duran, who was the team’s manager. And now, even as he’s prodded by the pain of separation, the time the big-bodied forward spends on the court provides a brief escape.

Clair, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, hails from Fort Washakie, a town of 250 located in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Duran grew up in Riverton, only about 20 miles away.

Although they knew of each other, it wasn’t until they met at Flandreau two years ago – during Duran’s one and only year at the school – that they started dating. Even after her graduation, the relationship continued long-distance.

Clair would have preferred to finish school in Wyoming, of course, but that state requires more credits for graduation than South Dakota. So if he wanted a diploma, FIS was his only option.

Meanwhile, Duran waits. She holds a job with the Boys and Girls Club – and also is pregnant with the couple’s second child.

Next school year, when they’re reunited, the pair hope to pursue additional education. Clair mentioned United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., or perhaps one of Colorado’s junior colleges.

Without Flandreau Indian School, neither Clair nor Duran would be entertaining thoughts of higher education. Both say they wouldn’t have finished high school had they stayed home. And they might have found serious turmoil to boot. Clair remembers seeing relatives under the control of alcohol, and he wanted no part of it.

“Back home, if I was going to school, I don’t think I would have made it to my senior year,” Clair said. “It was too easy to quit school and stop going.”

The second generation

Frank Daniels didn’t come to Flandreau Indian School because he had run out of options. Not by a far sight. It’s true that education is often a tenuous process on reservations, but through his freshman year, Daniels appeared to be headed in the right direction.

So this was something of a pre-emptive move – dodging trouble before trouble slithered into the picture. And don’t discount the role played by an old-fashioned case of youthful wanderlust.

“Yeah, I wanted to try something new and see what it was like,” said Daniels, a senior forward in his third year at Flandreau Indian School. “I’m glad I came.”

Of course, Daniels was hard-wired with a better understanding of the school than most newcomers. He lived on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation with his aunt, Karen Daniels – a graduate of Flandreau Indian School herself. She often regaled her nephew with tales of her South Dakota days.

In fact, most of Karen Daniels’ 12 brothers and sisters spent some of their high school careers at the school. So it has become a bit of a family tradition.

“I think it helps you grow up a lot and be more responsible,” said Karen Daniels from her home in East Glacier Park, Mont. “Frank is a pretty level-headed kid, so I don’t think it took all that much to go away for school.”

There were some lonely moments. When he first arrived as a sophomore, his only companion was an older cousin. It wasn’t until he began playing sports that Daniels grew cozy with the school.

Basketball is something he learned at Flandreau. He didn’t play as a freshman in Montana, but now, as an FIS senior, coach Anderson describes him as “a player who leaves his heart on the floor every time.”

It’s slightly odd that Daniels would find such contentment so far from home. When he was younger, his mother moved around more than he cared for, so he went to live with his aunt. (Daniels said his relationship with his mother is still on good terms.)

But during his freshman year, Daniels and his aunt began to suspect that staying home wouldn’t do. For one thing, he had to catch a bus early each morning for the 13-mile ride to Browning High, since East Glacier Park doesn’t have a high school. And for unmotivated students, skipping class was rather easy.

“He may have not even finished school,” Karen Daniels said. “And that’s the way it was for me, too. I might not have finished if I stayed at home.”

If Daniels’ tentative college plans work out, he’ll actually move farther from home. He may attend Nebraska’s Northeast Community College, joining Lonnie Fabel, a teammate of his last year.

But before that comes his FIS graduation in May. And for the first time since her own graduation ceremony, Karen Daniels will return to Flandreau.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” she said. “I have a lot of great memories there. And this will be a good one, too.”

The coach

He’s spent the last two decades coaching basketball, working with everyone from wide-eyed high school girls to battle-toughened college men. He’s made recruiting visits to the jungles of inner-city Chicago. He’s seen a lot.

Yet Paul Anderson calls this the most challenging job he’s ever faced. But almost in the same breath, the second-year Flandreau Indian School coach says it’s also been his most rewarding assignment.

“Like I told them in practice the other day, I wouldn’t give these guys up for anyone,” said the 42-year-old native of Rock Valley, Iowa. “The way these guys have been working and putting it together, it’s just been great.”

Anderson became Flandreau’s athletic director in 1999, then took over as basketball coach the following year. It was a position some of his coaching colleagues warned him against accepting.

Those warnings were based on the program’s unsportsmanlike reputation. To what degree that rap is deserved is up for debate. But Brian Johnson, Anderson’s assistant coach, remembers that stigma from his days at Flandreau’s public school 13 years ago.

“(FIS) has always been noted for having hotheads and, oh, maybe gangsters or something like that,” Johnson said. “(But) Paul has done a really good job of getting them back to where they respect us as coaches and we respect them as ballplayers.”

The school officials say that the program’s reputation has improved of late. And it’s this current crop of players that deserves much of the credit.

“These kids are great,” Johnson said. “Until you get up here and you know where they come from, you just don’t know what they’re about.”

Special season

And what about this winning? The prime factor seems to be stability. Because of the rapid turnover of the school’s student body, the complexion of the basketball team rarely is the same from season to season. But this team has had the good fortune to keep a core group of players intact for three years.

Still, winning at Flandreau Indian School is a difficult proposition. Anderson’s roster includes players from Wisconsin, Montana, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota. An off-season practice would be out of the question.

The job requires Anderson to handle players with checkered backgrounds, but it’s a task he welcomes. He said his next coaching move could be determined by the career of his wife, Sherry Kurtz, former KDLT-TV anchor.

“I told her that if she goes and gets another job in TV in a big city, I wouldn’t mind going to the inner city to coach,” Anderson said. “And this is about as close as I can get to the inner city around here.”

In order to maintain his authority, Anderson keeps a professional distance from the players. Juxtaposed to his stern father figure is Johnson, playing the part of the chummy older brother. Anderson lays down the law, and Johnson urges the players to follow it.

“It’s kind of a good-cop, bad-cop thing,” Anderson said, “even though that’s not really what we’re like.”

Yet Anderson occasionally is swept up in a player’s plight. In the process of making calls and cutting red tape to bring Mundell to Flandreau, basketball became a secondary concern.

“The thing is, if they OK him to play, great,” Anderson said. “But we at least got him here to go to school – that was the most important thing.”

So even before this season concludes – before whatever magic the Indians might uncover in the postseason – this has been a stupendous year.

And it has nothing to do with the score of a basketball game.

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Matt Baney, Argus Leader

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